Megachurches: Too Mega?

I like to go window-shopping just as much as the next person; my money burns holes into anything with pockets. I also admit to being one of the first in line for new advancements in technology and just about anything “bigger and better.” Just ask me about my interest in interior decorating and real estate, my pet obsession with Apple computers, or how I melt at the brilliance of a witty ad campaign. I smile just thinking of how great I am for realizing the benefits of the mass media and the newest technology. If your ear is tuned to what I just said, you’d recognize the distinct presence of my ego–how great I am. My focus is not on the benefits of these technologies for anyone else, nor on those who cannot afford such a lavish lifestyle. No, my focus is on me and my personal growth with the money God has given me.

What if I told you that many of the 850-900 megachurches in the U.S. are doing the exact same thing? Those that do believe that bigger is in fact better, and that being the first ones in line for new advancements in technology and worship will always mean they are doing the best possible things with the money God gave them.

Let me cut to the quick: the institution of the megachurch has strayed from the original plan set out by Messiah and the apostles.

The term megachurch, as defined by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, “generally refers to any congregation with a minimum sustained average weekly attendance of 2000 persons or more in its worship services.”

One example of a megachurch from my past is Resurrection Life Church of Grandville, MI. They have a regular attendance of over 7000. Res Life was a short-term haven for me one summer during college. I attended the young adult group on Thursday nights every week, needing friends and people to care for me one-on-one…. Four whole weeks slipped by before I could get beyond a cursory “hi” with anyone. While my heart was injured inside and as I longed for community, I got a good show and a played a few rounds of pool.

Is that church doing something right? Yes. Res Life creates a safe, fun place for college students to relax, play games, drink coffee, and praise the Lord together. But they are doing something wrong? Perhaps. Because that’s all they do. Why did I leave the church after only one summer? Because it was just too big, too flashy, and too shallow. I could not connect with anyone at the Sunday services. The sanctuary looked more like a concert hall or television studio than a church and there was no welcome center that I could find, just a bookstore in the foyer.

Another example of the megachurch mentality is Roswell Street Baptist Church of Atlanta. The church publishes a pamphlet that declares church growth to be a Biblical injunction and “the American way.”

Big is Beautiful…. Any church in a large, growing community that is practicing the ‘Great Commission’ cannot keep from growing. To criticize a church for being big is to imply disbelief in Christ’s commission…. A church gets big because its spirit is big…. Nobody ever started a business without hoping that someday, if he or she worked hard enough, it would be a big success. That is the American dream, isn’t it?

How can building concert venues, health clubs, and adding coffee shops to sanctuaries so big that they resemble stadiums truly be the best possible uses for the church’s money? That’s just it. They’re not.

What was the Church like when it first started? Acts 2:40-47 states that Paul preached about Jesus Christ and:

…About three thousand were added to their number that day. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer… and the apostles did many wonders and miraculous signs. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need… They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God… And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

Earth to megachurches: This was not the “American Dream.” The Church was certainly “mega,” having over three thousand people, and yet what did they do? They sold their possessions and goods and gave to all who had need. They did not (in their first century Jewish context) set up a health center at which widows, the poor in spirit, and the hungry could come exercise. The church did not consist of an enormous building with neon-lit baptism pools and television cameras. They were filled with the Holy Spirit and did miraculous signs and wonders by the power of God, not by the power of technology, Starbucks cappuccinos, or catchy theme t-shirts. I do sometimes wonder what those shirts would have said, but let’s leave that for another time.

Our culture is worlds apart from that of the first century, but the spirit of the Church as it was intended has changed. Yeshua said to Peter, the Rock of the Church, “Feed my sheep” in John 21. He did not say “Make me as attractive, socially acceptable, and up-to-date as possible.” Charles Roesel, pastor of First Baptist Church in Leesburg Florida punctuates this by saying, “As long as a church ministers to hurting people, it will never lack an audience… [Because it will be] a godly, loving, caring church that cares about people more than programs, that cares about people more than buildings, that cares about people as Christ cares for people.”

Bigger isn’t better when it means forgetting where you came from and what you were created to do. And the way things are headed, we’ve got bigger, but we have certainly not gotten better.

-Julia M.K.

PS: I can express three sides to this argument, so this certainly does not cover the wide range of opinion and observation I have on the topic. All of this was brought to mind after reading this post. Feel free to respond to it and not just my ramblings above.

The subject of megachurches comes up often in discussion and I’m hoping to touch on a few of the surrounding issues if you’ll care to join me. They are an easy target for outside critique; I hasten to mention that while megachurches better reflect the turnings of our society better than small churches (and so draw attention to themselves by nature), there are bigger fish to fry and many more pressing issues on the Christian table than just this. So we just bite off one morsel at a time and pass the napkins. Want to come along?

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7 thoughts on “Megachurches: Too Mega?

  1. I agree that there is a huge risk of losing sight of Jesus in such churches. I’ve never been a part of any megachurches, but, know that, if we’re spending all of our time enjoying all of the creature comforts of a “green zone” megachurch campus, that we’re not really doing a whole lot to spread the gospel and serve those who need to experience Christ. In my view, the church should be like pit road on race day. It is a place for refeuling and getting tuned up. Its not the race itself.

  2. Wow. Julia! How do you really feel? : )

    I went to a mega church for many years. Oakhills Church in San Antonio where Max Lucado preaches. (He was mentor in High School–how cool is that?) I was always able to maintain some small groups at Oakhills to cut down the enormity of it all, but toward the end these groups felt more like church than the worship service did.

    In the Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell argues that 150 is the largest size any community can grow to and still have everyone know everyone. I’m guessing 2000 or 7000 or 10,000 pretty much destroys any kind of unifying community. Those people are just residents of the same town-church.

    On the other hand, how does a group of 150 people sustain a salary for sometime to help organize the church? Could churches function efficiently without any paid staff? I’ve heard of this sort of thing, but never seen it in practice.

    (Thanks for the thinking blog award! I’m working on my response, and I apologize for being so terribly slow about making it over here. I sort of fell apart for about two weeks.)

  3. Pingback: Pseudo-Polymath » Blog Archive » Morning Highlights

  4. As the wife of a former minister, I can tell you that small churches struggle to pay the very small salaries for staff. Having 150 members includes children and pensioners. And you’d be surprised at how few tithe at 10 per cent. The economy plays a huge part, too.
    Also, most small churches have mortgages; if they supply a manse, they have to maintain upkeep including repairs and insurance, and some utilities, because often there is no church office or secretary; the minister’s office is part of his or her home. That is extremely stressful because there is no home/work separation that other people enjoy.
    I had people who considered the manse church property, and felt free to walk in anytime to chat or see if my husband was home. One person waited in the kitchen while I was showering.
    And at another small church, the phone was in the manse, which meant I had to dress my young son in winter to go over to the church to see if the person being called was there. When they finally, at our request, installed a church phone so people could call from there for rides home, they gave it the same number as our home, so I often found people lifting the receiver of the phone at the church while I was talking at home and asking me to get off so they could use it. Kids would just stay on the line waiting and breathing into the receiver. There was no confidentiality if my husband was discussing a private matter or counselling someone by phone; anyone could eavesdrop from the church or interrupt if they felt like it.
    And if you expect to live much above the poverty line, don’t go into ministry. And small churches are often rural, where congregants’ wages are likely to be lower. Health benefits also must be factored in. After more than 20 years in ministry, my husband’s salary was $32,000 Canadian. He spent a lot of that on car expenses, visiting people miles away in various hospitals and nursing homes, no matter if we were in the suburbs or in the country.
    He was on call 24/7 and also had his presbytery work to do. He never worked less than 60-70 hours a week. He had two small churches in his charge, each paying a portion of his salary.
    We have two children, and we tried to go it alone on his salary, but with car repairs and just plain living expenses, we started scrambling each month to pay our bills.
    I went back to work when we moved to a 250-member congregation outside Toronto.
    Our family was the second-highest giver; only a very wealthy family gave more. The givings are known only to the treasurer, but we gave 10 or more per cent, and we were well ahead of the pack. Other families with higher salaries were unable to tithe and pay for their homes or their other bills without going deeply into debt.
    And often a church may have 250 members, but not all may attend regularly. We did a huge amount of mission work locally with poor families who needed food and shelter, plus we had the Mission and Service Fund of the national church. And we supported an African Aids family and an Indian project that built roofs for the roofless in the poorest areas of India. We also sent people to India to help with innoculations and medical needs. But a lot of members gave only to mission work, which meant no money for the local church and its heating and electrical needs, nor for more than one small salary. The church struggled through financial crisis after crisis. We had constant fundraisers for various projects, but there’s a limit to how much people can keep paying before they become a family that needs rescuing. Turkey dinners, strawberry socials, craft sales, whatever, they all were done with volunteer work and donated food/items. Not everyone participates fully in every activity, because they have little children, are single parents or are infirm. We don’t have megachurches in Canada, at least not on a U.S. scale. What studies here have found is that although overall church attendance has been declining, partly due to our increasingly multi-ethnic population (a great addition to our country, BTW), so-called evangelical or pentecostal churches seem to be thriving. But a closer look revealed that many of these new large churches start to fail because the members are fickle and they church-shop for the next new thing — the church that has a gym for the church that has a pool. Or they dislike someone in the congregation and, because they have no real loyalty to the church as their home, they just pick up and move on. So these churches end up losing members to their cookie-cutter rivals. And because they are all independent churches, they end up closing shop and moving to a new location or simply dying.
    For small churches, a new roof, making the building wheelchair accessible (older churches often have to have major reconstruction to accomplish this, and there’s no break on the money it costs to do this).
    Young families especially were always strapped for money, and you don’t turn people away who don’t tithe. Seniors on a fixed income needed the money for food and shelter. All gave what they could. In a perfect world, a small church should be all right. But that’s not reality. The good thing is, you know each other really well, and the fellowship and worship are what really counts.
    When the church becomes a money-making machine, then God is out of the equation. And the church loses its charity designation and could end up prompting a government move to tax all church properties. And that would close a lot of them, particularly those in prime real estate areas.
    Somehow, having churches with vast amouts at their disposal disturbs me. It seems to take the work of a servant out of doing God’s work. If you can just throw money at the problem without any sacrifice or personal effort, then we’re part of society’s problem, and not part of its solution. Churches are not supposed to be corporations like Microsoft. They are about SERVING God, as true servants, not as paidup members of a tony country club.

  5. I have an unchurched background. When I became a Christian I was told by a friend that a good way to gauge if a church is for you or not if they have the following 3 components; A) Did someone greet you or make you feel welcomed during your visit. B) Does the church have small or cell groups? C) Did the church seem alive(in the spirit) or dead? I’m wondering if any of these componenets get sacrificed when a church goes or is mega? I attend a church that has moved from it’s current sancuary to a high school gym. We are 500+ now with 2 services. I am told we are considered a mega church. I’m glad we are growing. It shows that God is working in our community. I know alot of the people who attend the church only ‘cuz I’ve been a regular attender for 4+ years and am involved. At the same time, do I make an effort to put myself out there and get out of my comfort zone by introducing myself to people I don’t know. Not so much, if at all. I need to pray and work on that. What about the person who is a newcomer now, like I was 4+ years ago? Does he feel welcomed or uncomfortable? When is it time for a mega church to plant smaller churches within the community? Are people coming to the church ‘cuz God is really speaking to them there or are they going ‘cuz it’s Rick Warren, Max Lucado or Joel Osteen at the pulpit. Are we looking to become leaders in the body or are we looking to show up on Sunday and let someone else direct us? If that’s the case, why both showing up. With the cost of gas, why not just reach for the remote and watch your favorite televangelist on Sunday. My dad was a retailer of children’s clothing when I was growing up. He had one of the best store in the Twin Cities, but he saw the writing on the wall and got out. He saw the K-marts, Targets and Walmarts of this word closing in on him. Nobody want quality or uniqueness. They just wanted cheap, basic stuff. Is this true with Chrisitanity and the effect reached from attending mega churches? How unique can we be if were all going to the Mega church? Do churches sacrifice the doctrine when they go mega? Do they still ask the hard questions or are we just accepting the idealology du jour? In the meantime, there are many small churches that need help or are on the brink of closing.

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